“Beyond reasonable doubt”? Why the High Court quashed Pell’s convictions

by | Apr 8, 2020 | General

On Tuesday 7 April 2020, the High Court unanimously acquitted George Pell of his convictions. However, the decision did not relate to if Pell committed the offences, and focussed on whether a decision made in the Court of Appeal was a miscarriage of justice. In other words, the High Court assessed the decision of the Court of Appeal because Pell applied for a formal review.

The high profile case is a landmark event in Australian history and showcases an individual’s right to appeal. Many have said that there’s not been a case of this notoriety since Lindy Chamberlain.


County Court of Victoria Pell v The Queen [2019] VCC 260

In 2018, Pell was convicted by a jury who found him guilty beyond reasonable doubt of child sex offences occurring in 1996 and 1997. This means that based on the evidence, they had no doubt that Pell was guilty. Beyond reasonable doubt has been the tried and true test to determine guilt for centuries.

Court of Appeal Pell v The Queen [2019] VSCA 186

In 2019, Pell appealed his conviction before the Court of Appeal where his lawyers argued that the jury verdict “could not be supported by the whole of the evidence”.  This was a very difficult concept to argue, and essentially Pell’s lawyers had to prove that the jury couldn’t have been satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that he was guilty and were therefore obliged to find him not guilty. The Court of Appeal assessed the evidence as a whole and considered whether it was “open to the jury” to enter a guilty verdict beyond reasonable doubt even where imperfect evidence was provided. The majority agreed that it was open to the jury, and as a result the Court dismissed the appeal.

High Court Pell v The Queen [2020] HCA 12

In September 2019, Pell applied to the High Court for “special leave to appeal” on the grounds there was a miscarriage of justice.  The matter climbed the ranks of the Court system and the High Court had to assess the majority decision of the Court of Appeal. This can only be done in exceptional circumstances where there is an issue of law in dispute, but demonstrates the right to appeal a decision which may have been an error of judgement.

High Court Decision

In March 2020, the application was heard by the High Court. Pell’s legal team argued there was sufficient doubt in the evidence, and that the Court of Appeal incorrectly found it was “open to the jury” to submit a verdict beyond reasonable doubt where they may have arguably had doubt.

The High Court held the Court of Appeal judges did not conduct a correct assessment of the evidence and failed to provide proper consideration as to the possibility the offences never took place. Furthermore, the Court of Appeal judges should have found there was enough doubt that, a jury acting rationally, ought to have had a doubt to Pell’s guilt.

The words cited in the cases Chidiac v The Queen (1991) 171 CLR 432, and M v The Queen (1994) 181 CLR 487 were relied on in the judgment, which held there was “a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof”.

 As a result, the Kiefel CJ, Bell, Gaegler, Keane, Nettle, Gordon and Edelman JJ of the High Courtordered that Pell’s convictions be quashed.

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